“My name is Obadiah Strang and I have a terrible secret. It haunts me every waking hour, and at night when I finally manage to sleep it takes over my dreams.” – The Gravedigger’s Confession, Extract from the Black Book of Secrets, p. 55
Have you any secret to trade? The Black Book of Secrets is my first encounter with British writer F.E. Higgins. I came across this book a few months before I moved to my new apartment (which is only 3 blocks away from the library). I find the cover alone intriguing. The format gives a sense of authenticity, for it appears that I am holding the actual black book of secrets in my hand.
I remember putting the book back in the shelf when I had first found it. While the cover and the synopsis at the back tickled my fancy, I felt as if it would take me days to finish the book. (I don’t particularly like that notion because I lose interest eventually.) When the idea of a Whodunnit-Mystery theme popped up in one of GB’s numerous conversations and planning galore, I thought of this book. Destiny, perhaps?
Not including the days that I had to work and the hours I had to sleep, I (almost) finished this book in (collectively) 3 hours. I enjoyed this book so much that I had to purchase another F.E. Higgins book – The Eyeball Collector. Given the plot, the tone, and the language used in the book, I consider F.E. Higgins to be the female counterpart of master storyteller Neil Gaiman. As I read through the confessions of the Pagus Parvians, I was reminded of Neil Gaiman’s The Graveyard Book, Fragile Things, and Creatures of the Night. (In other words, if you like Neil Gaiman, then you’ll enjoy the writing style of F.E. Higgins.)
Boiling It Down to the Basics. The story of The Black Book of Secrets is quite simple, really. A young boy named Ludlow Fitch was running away from a terrible past, only to end up in the remote city of Pagus Parvus. There he became assistant to fellow “non-Parvian” Joe Zabbidou, a Secret Pawnbroker who trades people’s deepest, darkest secrets for a good price. Even with the limited reading and writing skills that he possessed, Ludlow was given the task of transcribing people’s confession on – you guessed it right – the Black Book of Secrets.
Despite the simplicity of the plot, The Black Book of Secrets manages to make me flip through the pages like a ferocious beast, dying to read through people’s confessions and uncover the mystery hovering Pagus Parvus. Apparently, I was dead wrong when I thought it would take me days to finish the book. Even after reading Markus Zusak’s I Am the Messenger (which I found heartrendering – more on this next time), I couldn’t remember the last time I’ve read a good book until I read The Black Book of Secrets. I read through it like a madman, but it lasted such an impression on me that I decided to save the Addenda until I post this review (hence, ‘almost’ finished). I do not wish for it to end, and I’d love to hear more tales from Pagus Parvus.
Traces of Psychology in Stories of Troubled Past. There is uniformity among the characters in the book. All of them – including Ludlow and Joe – bear terrible secrets. (Then again, don’t we all?) The story is divided into three main parts: the memoirs of Ludlow Fitch, extracts from the Black Book of Secrets, and the narrator’s point-of-view. F.E. Higgins alternates these parts and weaves them into a coherent story set in different perspectives.
The Pagus Parvians that come knocking on Joe’s shop at the strike of midnight are characters we are familiar with – a gravedigger, a butcher, a coffin maker, and a bookseller among others. Each has a terrible secret to tell, and it is with pleasure that Joe relieves them of the burden they carry – a therapist-client relationship I am familiar with, minus the big leather therapist chair.
The confessions were deep and dark indeed, and they all pointed to one man, which I leave for you readers to find out. Of these, however, I find one that was most fascinating: the butcher’s confession. His name was Horatio Cleaver. (Fancy that, a butcher bearing the name ‘Cleaver.’ Nice play on words, I must say.) He reminded me so much of the famous Sweeney Todd, the demon barber of Fleet Street. Images of Tim Burton and Johnny Depp floated in my mind as I read through Horatio Cleaver’s confession that had something to do with “meat pies.” (Another reason why I like F.E. Higgins.)
A Language Forgotten and the Famous Three Sister Fate. Joe Zabbidou is known to carry people’s dangerous past, but he is also noteworthy for his Latin phrases. Latin died centuries ago but traces of influence can be seen from time to time, as in the case of F.E. Higgins’ masterpiece. The inclusion of Latin phrases added an extra touch of mystery to the story. My favorites are vincit qui patitur which translates to “who waits, wins,” and fortuna favet fortibus which means “fortune favors the brave.” The former plays a big part in the turn of events in the story, which I also would leave for you to find out.
Emphasis on destiny reverberates throughout the story, and what is destiny without the mention of the three sister Fates? In one of Ludlow’s observations, he said,
“My gaze was drawn in to the area at my feet, just in front of the entrance to the palatial hall. I stood on the edge of the pale mosaic and depicted within were three figures: One sat at a spinning wheel, a second held a measuring rod to the thread, and the third stood over her with a pair of gleaming shears. Their faces were haggard and they seem to be in dispute.” – p. 245
Yet, even with the idea of destiny loosely tied with the plot, Joe also mentioned of finding one’s luck and writing your own “story.” While these two contrasting ideas do not often appear side-by-side in the stories I have read in the past, I do enjoy it when they are mentioned at the same time. In The Black Book of Secrets, I find that they do not contradict as much as I thought they would.
An Afterthought. I have so many good things to say about this book. Alas, I can only write so much for now as I have some important business to attend to. (Business as in work.) Needless to say, I strongly recommend this book to everyone. If you are in need of a fresh read, I urge you to discover the magic that is F.E. Higgins, and you will not be disappointed. I do suggest, however, that you revisit this post in three days’ time. Rest assured, I have edited and reviewed this post in a manner that it deserved. =)